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Five Principles for Independent Media in 2014

We hope to help inform a conversation which has already begun, but which needs to move with some swiftness from one that is reactive to one that is proactive.

(Photo: Roby Ferrari / Flickr; Edited: EL/TO)

Today’s media landscape is constantly shifting. As the industry follows wider economic trends, steady writing jobs remain few and far between. Many talented reporters and critics move around from outlet to outlet in a largely freelance economy. The way audiences find news and analysis has also changed – more and more often, readers will follow those writers around, using social media feeds to find stories, rather than going directly to one web site (let alone one television network, radio station or print publication). The line between “audience” and “media-makers” has eroded, too, amplifying voices and movements traditionally excluded from dominant journalistic platforms. Tweets and Facebook posts often travel farther and wider and faster than even the most “high-profile” newspaper articles.

As corporate media companies have scrambled to adapt, sometimes in the process offering platforms to people who disrupt the hegemony of the mainstream, new outlets have emerged which can’t be categorized as mainstream yet but don’t fit clearly into the mold of independent media either. Some of them openly tack still further to the right than corporate news (Free Beacon, for example, or the Breitbart News Network), while others have drawn criticism for the extent to which they seem dominated by the same, already overrepresented voices. Meanwhile, at the same time as social media has become increasingly recognized – though certainly not by everyone – as Media with a capital M (media to be taken seriously), it has enabled the emergence of new critiques of all sections of media – or perhaps more accurately, it has amplified critiques that were not new but now for the first time are too loud to be ignored.

In light of these developments, what principles should independent media follow? If we want the things we say about ourselves to ring true in the landscape in which we find ourselves in 2014, how should we act, write and envision our mission and purpose?

The following are principles to which Truthout already strives to adhere, but which we now feel are important to articulate explicitly. We hope to help inform a conversation which has already begun, but which needs to move with some swiftness from one that is reactive to one that is proactive. We hope to gesture towards an independent media that serves the future – whether that’s five minutes from now or 50 years ahead of us – and the people who live in it.

1. Be Intentional

Independent media has, on occasion, erred on the side of declaring not just an appropriate independence from corporations or political parties, but an independence from causes, ideologies, convictions, even points of view.

Most of us are not afraid to admit, privately, that we have intentions and that these intentions are political. But elsewhere, we feel we must make a point of insisting on our objectivity and balance, lest we be accused of partisanship or bias. This fear is not without substance: Accusations of bias have been used to discredit independent media, defund public media, and even to end mainstream careers. One of the earliest things both of us were taught about journalism was that it should strive, at all (or most) costs, for the grand ideal of “objectivity.”

Yet every time we retreat behind the shield of “objectivity,” something is lost. In part, that’s because the corporate media is not afraid to openly side with those with the most power – whether it’s the partisan conservative ties of Fox News or the “progressive” DNC partisanship of MSNBC. Fortunately, more and more reporters and other media-makers espouse the view, as we do, that “the myth of ‘objective’ journalism is not only false, but also unhelpful.”The next step, then, is to embrace being intentional.

For independent media, what does it mean to take a truly intentional approach? It means making decisions with an informed, wider context in mind and with clear social justice aims – both editorial decisions and decisions about our own practices. It means reframing and sometimes even discarding the idea of “bias”; in fact, we all should be “biased” toward truth, justice and freedom.

For us, at Truthout, it means constantly asking about everything we publish, whether it’s an original piece or one reprinted from a partner publication: Why are we publishing this? What does it add – to Truthout, to the broader conversation, to the struggle for justice?

It means being intentional about what voices we quote and promote; being aware that if we do not make conscious choices, invisible privileges will lead to the continued predominance of white, male, abled, heterosexual, cisgender and well-off voices. It means acknowledging power dynamics and seeking, wherever possible, to confront power and to avoid the cheap and easy satisfaction of criticizing those who do not have it – punching up, not punching down.

It means taking a stand on some issues and making it clear we do not believe they are up for debate. For example, we are not interested in “debating” the rights of trans and non-binary people to determine their own gender, to be accepted as such and to be afforded the same rights and basic human decency as cisgender people. We won’t represent “both sides” of a debate about whether it’s justified for the US government to pre-emptively murder a teenage boy.

2. Be Humble

An emphasis on talking heads, definitive opinions, and sound bites on cable TV has perpetuated the idea that being indisputably right is the main goal of both journalism and public dialogue. This closes out opportunities for questioning, and imagining, and experimentation. Independent media must take responsibility and serve as a forum for creative thought concerning social justice.

Confidence that one is 100 percent right – or 100 percent knowledgeable – about everything in a given area should not be a precursor for being granted a voice or a platform. Indeed, it could be argued that 100 percent confidence is usually a good indicator that something is being distorted or overlooked. When challenging the status quo, sometimes the “answer” is not immediately available, because the structures necessary to build those answers are not yet in place.

We must admit that we don’t know everything.

Non-corporate media can and should provide a space to puzzle out possibilities for both dismantling current systems and paving new paths, and for this journey, humility is an essential ingredient.

This approach has almost immeasurable intellectual, political and professional value. Intellectually, it is far more likely to yield new insights than the current fad for “explainer” journalism that assumes both that its audience is ill-informed in the extreme, and that the best way to rectify that is to have the subject at hand broken down into bite-sized flash cards by a wonkish figure of authority. Politically, it will broaden our understanding of who gets to speak with authority.

Professionally, it will simply lead to better journalism – by almost any standards. Journalism is a field that’s grounded in inquiry, and with inquiry must come a willingness and a capacity to learn. As we carry on our work as independent journalists, we should carry with us the mindset that the world has a lot to teach us – and that when it comes down to it, much of our job is simply to listen.

3. Be Bold

At the 2014 annual meeting of The Media Consortium, Rinku Sen (president and executive director of Race Forward and publisher of Colorlines) encouraged attendees to make two paradigmatic shifts. Firstly, to value not only those stories which prove to be great successes but also the ones read, seen or heard by only a handful of people; secondly, to move from a framework of scarcity to one of abundance.

What do these ideas have to do with being bold? The answer is that both can free us from a fear of failure that hampers the kind of journalism we could otherwise be producing.

Of course it’s only sensible and good for media outlets to look at data about our audiences, to keep track of what is most read and what’s having the biggest impact on the wider conversation and the wider world. But if our approach as writers and editors is tied too closely to chasing a bigger and bigger audience, and our desire to reach this audience is primarily tied to ensuring we stay funded, we are putting the cart before the horse in a way that risks falling into the same traps that hamstring the corporate media.

If we commit to covering stories that would otherwise go untold, it should be with the understanding that this is a worthwhile act in and of itself. If we commit to giving a voice to the voiceless, it cannot be conditional on the immediate popularity of what the voiceless have to say. While of course we want to amplify these voices and disseminate these stories to as many people as possible, and should always be refining our approach to do that as effectively as possible, one thing is inevitable: Some stories that are worth telling will not be well-received.

Taking risks and putting out ideas that might make some people uncomfortable, even angry, is the only way to move dialogues forward. (As we discuss below, however, too many media outlets are only interested in provoking anger and discomfort in people whose anger will generate attention, but is assumed ultimately not to matter.)

As part of this process, testing the bounds of what’s considered “journalism” – and who should be given a platform in a publication – is crucial. “Journalism” cannot remain confined to a scroll of “professionals” enacting formulas and filling in the blanks with interviews. If independent media is to provide a genuine alternative to corporate media, we must free ourselves from the respectability politics that not only keeps marginalized people in the margins but also limits the quality and range of public discourse.

4. Be Accountable

Too often, media have strived to maintain an airy distance from critique, an almost patrician-like separation from the “mob” of social media, comments sections, the mass of reader feedback emails and similar forums. The fear has been, perhaps, that to make media accountable would mean opening the floodgates and allowing oneself to be held hostage to anyone with a grudge.

To be sure, as we have outlined above, a media outlet that committed to never making any reader or subject of a story unhappy would be a media outlet that never published anything of value. If we have already decided to be bold, we have already decided that we are going to upset somebody. But if we have already decided to be intentional, then we can make decisions about to whom we are accountable.

In fact, pretty much every media outlet out there already makes these decisions – it’s just that usually, they decide that the only people whose feedback is worth listening to are the ones who already hold the most power, money and influence. George Orwell famously defined journalism as “printing what someone else does not want printed,” adding “everything else is public relations” – this now seems to us somewhat incomplete without specifying that journalism is publishing what someone with power does not want to see the light of day. There is sadly no shortage of journalism that is happy to be combative and take people to task, but only when they are people already marginalized.

If we are intentional, if we have a clear ethical and political compass, and if we are bold, then we will be able to stick to our guns when we anger powerful, wealthy and high-profile men but think carefully about what we might have done wrong if we upset marginalized communities – not the other way around.

This also requires us to think differently about the people for whom we are writing and publishing. Independent media must embrace and value readers, not only as “audiences” but as communities. Since we aren’t working for profit, our work only has a point if we are serving our communities and developing alongside them. That service and development is a collaborative effort, and we must remain conscious of the spirit of our involvement as journalists.

We must always remain conscious of whose stories we’re telling, and the impact these stories will make on not only the larger public but on the subjects of our stories themselves. We must not, in the name of “good journalism,” ignore the effects of that journalism on the people about whom we’re writing.

This means going beyond a legalistic outlook in which anything heard or printed in a public forum is fair game, and damn the consequences. It means acknowledging that by virtue of the platforms we have, most of us enjoy “a tremendous privilege and an even greater responsibility,” and that, to quote Susie Cagle, “At the least, we should seek to minimize harm to those we use – and yes, we do use them – to tell stories and ultimately earn livelihoods for ourselves.”

5. Progress, Not Perfection

The term “progressive” has been batted around in recent years to mean a number of contradictory things, some of which simply connote maintaining the status quo and tweaking it around the edges or returning to a mythical golden age when life was good for everyone. Journalists are uniquely positioned to provide an example of what it might mean instead to strive to be “progressive” in a different sense: committed to improving ourselves, our work and our society, but acutely aware of the inevitability of imperfection.

A strawman often invoked in recent years against efforts to hold media accountable, especially media that self-identifies as progressive, left-wing or feminist, is that critics are demanding an unreasonable and unachievable perfection.

It is true that perfection is unachievable. But the claim “nobody’s perfect!” is offered too frequently as a defense mechanism. It’s a knee-jerk resistance to criticism that many of us can recognize from arguments in our personal lives. Since nobody is perfect, the thinking goes, we should surely not have our shortcomings pointed out but rather our accomplishments praised. Since the bar is set so low, surely we have done enough.

What would the media culture look like if, instead, we took “nobody’s perfect” to mean that we acknowledged our own limitations, shortcomings and past mistakes – and instead of either denying them, downplaying them or being discouraged by them, resolved to learn from them?

It’s hard to say, because that isn’t the media culture we currently have. But it’s the one we’re trying to build, not with a wholly defined end in sight but as a continual process, working to carve our own media landscape, transforming as we go.

We can’t promise perfection. We don’t pretend this practice will be easy – that there won’t be times when important priorities conflict or when the needs of different communities clash (after all, “there are some very real tensions for us to hold in the face of overlapping systems of oppression“). All we can do is make our best good-faith effort to be intentional, humble, bold and accountable, more so today than yesterday and even more so tomorrow, working with the conviction that a better media world is possible. Starting with Truthout.

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